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Before Apocalypse unleashes the end of the world, there is a moment
when the gifted youngsters of Professor Charles Xavier's school for
mutants sneak out to the cinema to see 'Return of the Jedi'. Following
a debate which of the original 'Star Wars' films is the best, a teenage
Jean Grey gets the final word with the following remark: "Well, at
least we can all agree, the third one is always the worst". Though
clearly intended as a dig at Brett Ratner's oft-criticised 'The Last
Stand', it is an equally prescient remark about the third
superhero-versus-superhero showdown of this year, a loud, empty,
overblown CGI-fest that possesses not the depth or excitement of the
eminently superior 'Captain America: Civil War' nor even the grand
operatic ambition of the flawed 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'.
As promising as it may be to underscore the ideological divide among the mutants of waging war or making peace by introducing an all- powerful deity meant to be the first of their kind, that premise never quite comes to fruition here. Aside from world domination (which pretty much sums up describes what every other comic book villain is after), there is no purpose or motivation to Apocalypse's plan to scorch everything on the planet. Try though Oscar Isaac does, the usually charismatic actor struggles to bring much conviction to his character's monologues about restoring the strong in their rightful place atop society, not least because the actor is buried under slathered-on makeup, facial prosthetics and a costume that would make Thanos embarrassed.
Seeing as how Apocalypse proves to be a disappointingly generic villain, it once again falls to James McAvoy's Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender's Magneto/ Erik Lensherr to provide the dramatic conflict on which the showdown between good and evil is based. And yet that tension between Charles' man of reason and hope versus Magneto's darker impulses has been fought so many times that it feels familiar and undercooked here, especially considering how its immediate predecessor had fleshed out the same complex relationship out so much more beautifully.
That essentially reduces 'Apocalypse' to yet another superhero round- up much like the first 'X-Men' or 'X-Men: First Class', and so, for the first hour, we are introduced to newcomers Tye Sheridan's laser- sighted Scott Summers a.k.a. Cyclops, Sophie Turner's telekinetic Jean Grey and Teutonic teleporter Kurt Wagner a.k.a. Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They will eventually join forces with 'First Class' regulars Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to go head to head with Apocalypse's 'Four Horsemen' recruits weather-controller Storm (Alexandra Shipp), energy- manipulator Psylocke (Olivia Munn), flight-enabled Angel (Ben Hardy) and last but not least, Magneto. News about the latter will also prompt the son he doesn't yet know about, Quiksilver (Evan Peters), to enlist in Professor Xavier's school, where he will put his fleet- footed powers to save all the students within from an explosion ripping the building apart.
Given how that sequence set to Eurythmics' period-appropriate synth- jam 'Sweet Dreams' is by and large an exact copy of the crowdpleasing scene-stealing sequence in 'Days of Future Past', there is more than a nagging suspicion that director Bryan Singer (who marks his fourth 'X- Men' outing with this movie) has pretty much run out of ideas. As if compensating for an attention-deficit audience, Singer and his screenwriter Simon Kinberg cut from subplot to subplot without ever letting their audience get involved in any one storyline or character. Even though the 'X-Men' movies have always been an ensemble, Singer has always grounded them in their struggles to emerge from wealth or poverty, acceptance or rejection, confidence or self-hatred; yet this latest dumbs down their humanity in favour of pure spectacle, which proves an ultimately foolhardy choice in this era where there are just too many superheroes fighting for our attention.
Even as a superhero slugfest, the action is frankly disappointing. It says a lot when Quiksilver's cheeky slo-mo turns out to be the highlight of a film that promises no less than the end of the world. At any and every opportunity, every other character reminds us of what is at stake, but the large-scale catastrophe consists of nothing more than unimpressive shots of capital cities (including New York, Sydney and Cairo) reduced to swirling CGI-dust with little sense of tragedy or consequence. The climax itself is packed with plenty of sound and fury, but comes off shockingly dull. Rather than have the Horsemen take apart the good guys as a team, Singer splits the fight into a series of mini-skirmishes that hardly do the characters or their superpowers justice. By the time Apocalypse (finally) steps into the fray after a way-too-long buildup, the battle has shifted into his mind (which, as we suspect, turns out to be pretty blank), but that change of setting barely unleashes any creative possibility for Singer to think out of this world.
And coming off 'Days of Future Past', 'Apocalypse' is undoubtedly a tragic letdown. There are so many characters that even Charles and Magneto become no more than supporting acts, their perennial disagreement treated as an afterthought than the dramatic dynamo of the film. The titular villain may seem like great potential as an antagonist, but ends up vague, underwhelming and insignificant. And most notably, what used to be potent allegory about the civil rights movement or coming out in the LGBT community has now been diminished to standard, sometimes sub-standard, superhero melee, so much so that it even fails to make good use of its vibrant 1980s setting except for a couple of recognisable tunes. It may not be the apocalypse of the 'X-Men' franchise, but this dreadfully boring and derivative entry could very well portent its end.
Sequels often seem too eager to reprise the (winning) formula of their
predecessor, without realising that the same jokes ain't quite so funny
the second time around; and yet those who try to reinvent the wheel
also risk falling out of favour with fans of the original, who are
ultimately expect a fresh, yet familiar, helping of the same.
Accomplishing that balance isn't quite so easy, which is just one
reason why 'Neighbours 2' is a surprising achievement. While reprising
the template of the original in having middle-aged Seth Rogen and Rose
Bryne's homeowners/ newfound parents take on loud, obnoxious teenagers
right next door, this sequel that manages to be just as, if not more,
raucous and outrageous is even funnier, more poignant and we dare say,
even better than the original.
Instead of Zac Efron's perfectly ripped Teddy Sanders and his other Delta Psi frat-boys, Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Bryne) find themselves up against a sorority led by Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her similarly non-conformist new friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein). Irked by the rule that sororities on campus are not allowed to host parties and appalled by the 'rape culture' at misogynistic frat parties, Shelby decides to search for a house outside of the university grounds to start a new sorority she eventually names 'Kappa Nu', a search that brings her to the very house where Delta Psi used to reside. Their timing however couldn't be more unfortunate in anticipation of their second child, Mac and Kelly have just sold their house to a mixed-race couple, who have a 30-day escrow period to make sure the place is in order before confirming their purchase.
Shelby finds an unexpected ally in Teddy, whom we learn has been struggling to adjust to life after college. Not only does he find that his abs have become no longer relevant at Abercrombie & Fitch where he works, his best friend and roommate Pete (Dave Franco) wants him to move out after coming out of the closet by announcing that he is about to get married to a man. Teddy's still sore about the previous confrontation with Mac and Kelly not least because it left him with a criminal record that has made it difficult for him to find employment and finds purpose assisting Shelby work out the sums to pay rent by showing them how to run a party to also attract more like-minded females to join Kappa Nu. It is also Teddy who coaxes Shelby not to acquiesce to a 30-day truce which Mac proposes.
And so just like that, the battle lines have been drawn between the two houses yet again, though Teddy will switch sides halfway when the Kappa Nus hold an executive meeting over Instant Messaging (IM) and oust him for being "an old person". Somewhat surprisingly, the gags you probably already know about including that of the Kappa Nus dressed in bikinis throwing themselves on top of Mac's car are as brief as they have been glimpsed in the trailers. Indeed, there is more up the sleeves of returning director Nicholas Stoller and his team of screenwriters (including original scribes Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, and Rogen and Evan Goldberg) than you would expect, ranging from a marijuana heist at a tailgate party to an iPhone sabotage that leads to a series of misplaced texts and false alarms.
Just as amusing as these high-farce set pieces are the high-profile cameos by Lisa Kudrow and Kelsey Grammar, the former as a hard-assed college principal whom Kelly makes the mistake of trying to bribe with a couple of dollars and coins and the latter as Shelby's dad whom Mac and Kelly call in to rein in his 'wayward' daughter. That 'Neighbours 2' turns out more engaging than the sum of these parts is credit to the attention and detail that Stoller pays to each one of the key characters namely, Mac, Kelly, Teddy and Shelby none of whom he conveniently fits into the mould of hero or villain. In fact, you'll be pleasantly amazed at how your sympathies shift during the course of the movie, so much so that you'd wish that they could all just put aside their differences and get along with each other at the end of the day.
Amidst the laughs, there is also a thoughtful and sometimes thought- provoking lesson on sexism. On the surface, the very establishment of Kappa Nu seems like a modern-day feminist movement, its genesis rooted in the rebellion against the archaic rules of the Greek system that persist till today. And yet, along the way, Stoller and his eminently male screen writing team call out the hypocritical pitfalls of such empowerments, especially as Kudrow's college dean points out to Mac that 'there is no such thing as reverse sexism'. The subtext here is a little less straightforward, but those looking for a more forthright comedy of low-brow pleasure will find much to laugh and holler at in this authentically ribald sequel. Oh yes, fans of the original will be glad to know that even though the gender is different, the gross-out sensibilities remain intact, and this is as perfect a sequel as you would expect.
Neither Snow White nor Kristen Stewart from the earlier 'Snow White and
the Huntsman' return for this follow-up, though it is anyone's guess
whether their exclusion is due to the actress being too expensive for
this decidedly lower-budget instalment or because of her
relationship-ending fling with the first film's married director Rupert
Sanders. In her character's place, it is perhaps only natural and
inevitable that Chris Hemsworth's axe-wielding hero Eric would be
elevated to lead status, in order to form the narrative glue between
the events of that 2012 original and this latest and if you're
wondering about Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravenna, let's just say
that she plays at best a supporting role that is much less significant
than the promotional materials have made her out to be.
Rather than choose between a prequel and a sequel, French director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and his writers Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin have decided to make their live-action fairytale a bit of both, resulting in a time jump that will leave those unfamiliar with the earlier film more than a little confused. With no small measure of help from narrator Liam Neeson, we are introduced to Ravenna's younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt), a romantic-at-heart who turns into a bitter icy-hearted villainess following the death of her child at the presumed hands of her lover cum daughter's father. It is perhaps no coincidence given 'Frozen's' box-office success that Freya develops icy-related powers in her post-traumatic process, transforming into the Ice Queen who goes about establishing her kingdom of ruthless killers by kidnapping kids and training them to be warriors she calls huntsmen.
Two of her best warriors happen to be Eric (played in his teenage years by Conrad Khan) and the flame-haired Sara (Niamh Walter; then Jessica Chastain), who defy Freya's commandment not to love by doing just that with each other. When she finds out that Eric and Sara have secretly gotten married and intend to leave her kingdom, Freya separates them with a wall of enchanted ice that leaves Eric thinking that Sara has been killed by a fellow huntsman and Sara thinking that Eric has left her there to die. The plot then fast- forwards seven years to after Snow White's defeat of Ravenna in part one, where Sam Claflin's handsome prince makes a brief return to implore Eric to track down and destroy Ravenna's magic golden mirror that has gone missing but continues to exert its evil influence over Snow White.
That mission is of course but excuse for Eric to be reunited with his thought-to-be-dead wife Sara and team up to end Freya's icy dominion once and for all but not without vanquishing her 'cannot- seem-to-stay-dead' sister Ravenna at the same time. Since Eric and Sara are not quite people of good humour, their journey gets some welcome comic relief in the form of two male dwarfs Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) as well as their romantic interests of the opposite sex Mrs. Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). As distracting as their snappy salty banter may be, their presence is easily the best thing that the film has going for it, not only because of their easy chemistry but also because they get the scant memorable lines from an otherwise clunky and leaden script.
As sympathetic as we want to be to the writers for having to keep Snow White out of the picture, the seven-year leap around the events of the original does their film absolutely no favours. What transpired between Ravenna and Freya in those seven years, or Sara for that matter, is probably the most glaring logic gap, not to mention why Freya would suddenly decide upon her sister's death that she should acquire the magic mirror for herself. It also begs the question why Freya never sought to doubt Ravenna's hand in orchestrating the death of her daughter in the years since the former left to create her own fiefdom, and only decides to do so when the latter is somehow magically resurrected by the mirror.
Nicolas-Troyan's experience in the visual effects department (as opposed to the storytelling department) also means that his priority is to deliver spectacle, and true enough, the wintry vistas as well as the CGI-ed sorcery looks sumptuous. There are Colleen Atwood's lavish costumes to feast on as well, the veteran designer on many a Tim Burton film going all out to make Freya look coolly stunning and Ravenna wickedly ravishing. Yet all that style cannot quite distract from a distinct lack of substance, which borrows liberally from a certain Disney animated hit with that song 'Let It Go', 'The Lord of the Rings', 'Game of Thrones' and even 'The Hunger Games'. Oh yes, you'll be hard-pressed to find a shred of originality in this half- baked mish-mash of a product which makes no apologies for taking ingredients from other vastly superior fairy-tales and/ or fantasy adventures.
If that sounds like we're bashing up 'The Huntsman: Winter's War', that's largely because it is quite embarrassingly devoid of imagination, inspiration or excitement and no minotaur-like monster or elfin wood nymph changes that. That's not to say that it isn't watchable, especially if all you're looking for is some diverting fairy-tale entertainment; but when you have actors off the quality of Chastain, Theron and Blunt, you'd probably expect much, much more than a throwaway popcorn flick that squanders them in such shallow caricatured roles. Hemsworth might be one of the hottest male actors today, but even his fit, rugged presence cannot quite save you from this cold.
For someone who has dedicated more than half his life reinventing the
martial arts genre of modern-day Hong Kong cinema, Sammo Hung certainly
has not been resting on his laurels. Not only did he recently direct
Aaron Kwok and Gong Li in the many extravagant action set-pieces of
'The Monkey King 2', he has also been busy assuming similar duties on
Benny Chan's upcoming period action blockbuster 'The Deadly Reclaim'.
Compared to these two elaborate big-budget epics, 'The Bodyguard',
which sees Sammo assume multi- hyphenate duties as director, action
director and lead actor, feels like a walk in the park for the
64-year-old actor/ martial artist.
And it probably is, judging from the friends who have turned up to see Sammo return to the director's chair after a hiatus of close of two decades including Yuen Wah as the postman of the sleepy town at the border of China and Russia where the movie is set, Yuen Qiu as a social worker, Yuen Biao as the town's police commander and Karl Maka, Tsui Hark and Dean Shek as a bunch of town elders who always have a quick barb to trade with each other. Besides these notable alums from Hong Kong cinema past, contemporaries like Hu Jun, Feng Shaofeng and Eddie Peng have also turned up for the all- stars reunion though we're leaving out special guest star Andy Lau, since he is after all producer of the movie through his Focus Films company.
Though it is unlikely to expect each one of these guest stars to have a meaningful place in the film, those expecting any of them to have anything more than a glorified cameo will be sorely disappointed. Except for Lau, who plays father to the young girl whom Sammo's titular bodyguard befriends and eventually protects, not a single one of the other actors contributes any more than a 'blink-and-miss' appearance, so there's no point wondering if any will spar with Sammo at all. Oh yes, you would do well to know that these 'guest appearances' are completely extraneous to the story, which tells of a retired Central Security Bureau (CSB) officer named Mr Ding who calls upon his very particular set of skills to protect an innocent life.
As much as that premise lends itself to a martial arts showcase for Sammo, 'The Bodyguard' is anything but. Indeed, those looking for a straight-out action flick will very likely be disappointed, for Sammo approaches the 'Taken-like' high-concept movie in a conspicuously low-key manner, so much so that it ends up being an hour of set-up, exposition and character build-up for a single extended close- quarter showdown that conveniently pits Sammo against two warring gangster factions at the same time and in the same place. To call it an action thriller would in fact be a misnomer, for it is at best a simple character drama with some bits of action thrown in to lure unsuspecting viewers from Sammo's considerable fan-base.
That drama largely consists of Sammo either looking lost due to the early onset of dementia that his character is suffering from or acting shy due to the advances of his landlord Madam Park (Li Qinqin). Crucially, Sammo plays his character so aloof that we cannot quite identify with the grief he has supposedly been carrying in his heart after losing his granddaughter while out with her many years ago, which is also why he is currently estranged from his daughter now in America. In the same way, we can also hardly feel the connection between his character and the young girl he now feels responsible for, or for that matter why he suddenly snaps out of his usual passivity to defend her in the third act.
It's no secret that Sammo is a better fighter than an actor, and the fact that he does plenty of the latter and too little of the former in the first two acts makes the movie a drag. Only in the last half hour does Sammo abandon his dementia-induced stupor for a one- against- many showdown against Choi's henchmen and the Russians, which gives him the chance to engage in the sort of lethal bone- breaking we suspect most would be waiting for. Yet it is hardly breathtaking stuff especially for those well-acquainted with Sammo's previous movies and too many close-ups as well as a slower-than-ideal frame-rate for Sammo's lightning-quick moves ultimately make this too-little too-late finale slightly underwhelming.
That expectations are high for 'The Bodyguard' is inevitable; like we said, this is the first time that Sammo is in the director's chair after helming both 'Mr Nice Guy' and 'Once Upon A Time in China and America' back in 1997. Yet even without the weight of such expectations, this languid drama with just one modest fight sequence at the end is unlikely to satisfy action fans or the rare audience member looking for a serious-minded story on redemption. At this age, there is really little that Sammo need do to cement his legacy as legend, but it should also be said that anyone looking for him to revive his past glories on the big screen will go away empty. We adore Sammo just as much as his most ardent fan, but even that love and respect is not enough for us to find anything redeeming about 'The Bodyguard'. Sorry, 'dai gor'.
Of late, Jack Neo's stories have gotten longer, but in the case of
'Long Long Time Ago' at least, we can reassure you that it isn't
because he has gotten more long-winded.
For the uninitiated, the two-part saga of the trials and tribulations of a family living through the early years of Singapore's independence is Neo's ode to a bygone era in Singapore's history.
Zhao Di (Aileen Tan) is the eldest daughter, gentle, restrained yet quietly resilient; while Ah Kun (Mark Lee) is her second brother, an opportunistic good-for-nothing ingrate who not only gambles his time away but is consistently getting himself and his family into trouble. Their conflict was the backbone of the story and character dynamics in the first movie, and comes to a boil here as greed takes hold of Ah Kun.
The trigger here is the Government's relocation of citizens from 'kampungs' to HDB flats, in order to free up land for national development. Along with that move comes the promise of a generous compensation package, depending on the amount of land that would be expropriated as well as the 'activities' on that land such as pig farming etc. Though he had never lifted a finger to help Zhao Di turn their barren front yard into a modest pig farm, Ah Kun demands a share of the compensation that would be given in exchange of the 'pig farming' licence, and even goes so far as to smear Zhao Di's good name in order to get their family and extended relatives on his side.
Like we've said about the first movie, Tan and Lee are some of the most seasoned local performers and continue to shine in their respective roles. The usually glamorous Tan deftly underplays her uncharacteristically subdued role with nuance and grace, never once stooping to hysterics to win her audience's sympathy. On the other hand, Lee was born to play the brash, hot-headed lout, and it is to his credit that we end up loathing his character as much as we sympathise with Tan's. Lee's scenes with Tan are easily the most engaging in the whole film, and it is also in these scenes that Neo holds back the distractions (think: product placements) to allow these two excellent actors to communicate their characters' frustrations, disappointments as well as, in the case of Ah Kun, remorse with absolute clarity.
In contrast, the other narrative strands are understandably but also regrettably less fleshed out. Ah Hee's interracial relationship and eventual marriage with Rani (Bharathi Rani) fares best relatively, but Neo treats the potentially controversial subject as comic relief (read: Rani happens to be former health inspector Shamugen's (Silvarajoo Prakasam) daughter) than any serious-minded discourse on the possible tensions that could arise from differences in culture and language. Ah Long's (Ryan Lian) budding romance for Zhao Di never quite goes anywhere, but the most severely underdeveloped subplot has to be Osman's (Suhaimi Yusof) falling out with his teenage son Ahmad after the former smashes the latter's guitar in a fit of anger.
Juggling the sheer number of characters is no small feat, and inevitably some like Ah Kun's wife (Charmaine Sei) or Osman's wife (Nurijah Sahat) will not get much to do at all. Yet as much as one is willing to extend such concessions to the sprawling script by Neo and two of his regular screen writing collaborators Link Sng and Ivan Ho, it is no less lamentable that Wang Lei's Si Shu and Osman are almost completely sidelined here, squandering what time and attention had been placed on developing their characters the first time round. Oh yes, Ah Kun's resentment of Zhao Di's modest successes is compellingly drawn, but every other detail feels a little undercooked to say the very least.
If there is one consolation, it is that this second part doesn't strain as much as its predecessor does in trying to fit the iconic moments in Singapore's history into its narrative. Aside from the passing references to Wang Sa and Ya Fong's comedy skits on local black-and-white TV, the only milestone which Neo flag-checks here is the relocation of 'kampong' dwellers into HDB flats, which in turn allows Neo the time and space to properly acknowledge its significance to the thousands of affected individuals and we are not just talking about the thrill of riding up and down for the first time in a lift but also the drastic change in one's living environment and livelihood.
No other director has quite so ambitiously tried to capture such moments in Singapore's fifty years of phenomenal change, and there is no denying the passion, conviction and commitment that Neo brings to the film as a whole, notwithstanding his persistent weaknesses as a storyteller. Indeed, Neo still cannot resist being didactic at the very end, but there is still a perfectly engrossing family drama to be enjoyed, complete with an exemplification of the oft-mentioned 'kampong spirit'. 'Long Long Time Ago 2' brings Neo's story of Singapore and Singaporeans to a stronger finish than we would have ever expected, and that alone is reason enough to get your family, your friends, your fellow Singaporeans, your fellow non-Singaporean residents to enjoy, appreciate and discover a uniquely Singaporean slice of history come alive.
History is replete with the follies of Hollywood's gods-versus- mortals
epics that have since faded into ignominy or is remembered with scorn,
so much so that it is almost instinct to wonder which 'Gods of Egypt'
will turn out to be, especially given its pre- release criticism about
its literally white-washed cast. Yet Alex Proyas' first film in seven
years deserves much better regard than the toxic buzz it has been
getting not only is it one of the more imaginative mythological
adventures in recent years, it is also one of the most entertaining by
simply not taking itself too seriously.
Imagining an ancient Egypt that never existed where gods and men live together, this effects-driven CGI extravaganza pits the benevolent if slightly flirtatious lord of the air Horus (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau) against the nefarious desert god Set (Gerard Butler) who usurps his throne of Egypt on the day of his coronation. As with most such power tussles, there is a familial dimension Set is in fact Horus' uncle, who isn't just resentful that his father, the sun god Ra (Geoffrey Rush), had given rule of Egypt to Horus but also seemingly banished him to a bleak and barren wasteland. So Set kills his brother Osiris (Bryan Brown) and blinds Horus, exiling him to some faraway dune to wallow in self-pity and eternal misery.
That opening sets the stage for Horus to embark on a journey of self-discovery on his way to reclaiming the throne, with immeasurable help from a mortal thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites). It is Bek who returns Horus one of his eyes after breaking into Set's seemingly impenetrable vault, who also subsequently accompanies Horus on his quest in exchange for passage for his one true love Zaya (Courtney Eaton) back from the underworld. And so begins a series of razzle-dazzle action sequences, including a thrilling chase by two evil goddesses Astarte (Abbey Lee) and Anat (Yaya Deng) atop two giant fire-breathing serpents and a near-death escape from Set with some help from Elodie Yung's goddess of love Hathor inside the chamber of a towering Sphinx.
Oh yes, there is no such thing as subtlety here. The chariots are pulled by giant scarab beetles. Sedan chairs take flight with hundreds of birds. Gods transform from their 11, 12 feet in height human form into glistening animal-headed robots and bleed liquid gold. Ra lives in a spaceship hovering above the Earth, bursts into flames at will and spends each night doing battle with the Lovecraftian ancient Apep by shooting fireballs from his spear. Indeed, as far as being gaudy is concerned, Proyas isn't shy at all about flaunting every single dollar of his significant US$140 million budget that went into creating the sheer visual spectacle (or excess, depending on how you see it) that you'll get to see on the big screen.
Yet its silliness certainly isn't lost on Proyas; indeed, along with his writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless ('Dracula Untold' and 'The Last Witch Hunter'), Proyas gleefully embraces its absurdity with campy humour. For one, Bek is never too far from an amusing quib usually directed at Bek. For another, the god of wisdom Thoth (Chadwick Boseman) is a ball being haughty and all full of himself and we mean that literally in the context of the hundreds of copies he has made of himself to serve him in his lair. It never does take itself too seriously, nor too flippantly to be completely dismissed, and the levity is a nice counter-balance to the elaborate kitsch on display.
Credit that too to Coaster-Waldau and Thwaites, who sustain a lively bickersome chemistry as a pair of mismatched buddies forced to work together rather than apart. For the ladies, Coaster-Waldau also oozes sheer masculine charm, while Butler often chews up the scenery with pomp and swagger. Both actors are no stranger to the swords-and- sandals genre the former from the HBO series 'Game of Thrones' and the latter of course from '300' and have no trouble convincing us of their place in Egyptian mythology. Rush also lends his trademark eccentricity to Ra, looking just at home on his solar barque.
And so like last summer's 'Hercules', 'Gods of Egypt' rises above the ashes by delivering two hours of solid sword-and-sorcery entertainment with dashes of self-aware humour. There is swashbuckling adventure, romance, epic battles and plenty of visual grandeur to meet its mad ambition with lunatic conviction. That it is overstuffed is part of its excessive nature, but you can't argue that it doesn't fill you with a sense of awe and captivate and delight you more than you expect it to.
From Chow Yun Fat's Ko Chun to Andy Lau's Michael Chan to Chow Yun
Fat's more recent Ken Shek, three generations of gambling legends unite
in the third instalment of Wong Jing's 'From Vegas to Macau' franchise;
and how perfectly apt really, since it was from the prolific mind of
Wong Jing that these iconic characters of Hong Kong cinema were hatched
and etched into the public consciousness. Yet, as befitting as it may
be for him to be at the helm of this reunion party, it is also
ironically the reason why we are quite so utterly disappointed at this
lazily scripted, messily directed piece of overblown, over-the-top
nonsense which Wong Jing is passing off as a fun Lunar New Year caper.
Not that the previous two chapters, which saw Chow Yun-Fat portray Ken as a playful and even zany riff on his 1980s 'God of Gamblers' character, were classics; yet imperfect and at least mildly shambling as they were, 'From Vegas to Macau' and 'From Vegas to Macau 2' were a boisterous mix of kinetic action and goofy humour buoyed by Chow's effortless screen charm. That charisma is sorely lacking in this bloated follow-up given how Ken is joined not only by Nick Cheung's former D.O.A. accountant Mark, but also his master Ko Chun's disciple Michael (Lau), Michael's no-nonsense partner Kitty (Li Yuchun), a new nemesis named J.C. (Jacky Cheung) and last but not least a female equivalent to his male robo-butler named Skinny that the latter unsurprisingly takes a romantic interest in.
Continuing on the downward trajectory set by its immediate predecessor from the original, the sorry excuse of a plot that picks up from the events of the former has the love-crazed J.C. plotting to exact revenge on Ken for leaving Molly (Carina Lau) in her current comatose state. So J.C. detonates a bomb in the form of a robot designed to look like Michael at Ken's daughter's wedding (Kimmy Tong), and sets Ken and Nick up to look like they stole the US$15 million they recovered from Molly's international criminal organisation D.O.A. in the last instalment. Thanks to Michael and Kitty, Ken and Nick manage to break out of a high-security prison in Hong Kong, where they seek refuge in Michael's home in Singapore before going to a fictional island named Paradise Island in Thailand to confront J.C.
To nitpick at Wong Jing's script for his story is perhaps missing the point; after all, Wong Jing makes no attempt to disguise that it exists merely as narrative glue to connect standalone gags to action-heavy set-pieces. Yet even more than the last sequel, this one presumes audience goodwill in overlooking the gaping holes and lapses of logic in its plotting.
Unfortunately, there is little quid pro quo in our willingness to suspend disbelief. Compared to the previous instalments, there are a grand total of three gags that work here the first which has Ken lead his fellow inmates on a sing-along of the classic 'Prison on Fire' song 'The Light of Friendship' (友誼之光) at the prison where no less than the song's Macanese singer and songwriter Maria Cordero is the warden; the second which has a traumatised Ken regard himself as Zhang Wuji and his friends as other 'Jin Yong' characters after watching a classic adaptation of 'The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber'; and the last which sees Michael and Kitty play a game of mahjong with Yuen Qiu and Lo Hoi Pang to the tune of Sam Hui's classic 'The Mahjong Heroes' (or '打雀英雄傳').
As much as we love to see Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau and Nick Cheung clowning around with each other, the rest of the gags are tired, forced and uninspired, so much so that the middle act set in Michael's house passes by like a slog. Only the surprise appearance by Law Kar-Ying as an ammo expert by the name of 'Only Yu' (you either get the joke or you don't) enlivens the proceedings, though after that initial tongue-in-cheek name-play, Wong Jing can't even seem to follow through with anything amusing.
Seemingly aware of his audience's tedium, co-director Andrew Lau over-compensates in the last act with an excess of gunfire, pyrotechnics and CGI. Instead of actual locations, Lau has opted to build a number of grand sets to make up J.C's elaborate underground lair, most of which he then proceeds to blow up in slo-mo theatrical fashion after equally dramatic shoot-outs. Still, the action hardly excites, and is often over in a blur. The only two sequences which leave an impression but for the wrong reasons are a completely gratuitous one where Lau unleashes his 'Michael Bay' ambitions by letting Robot Stupid and Robot Skinny take on four evil robots in 'Transformers' fashion before Nick Cheung turns into 'Iron Man' to finish them off, and a totally cringe-worthy showdown between Ken and J.C. in the latter's (literally) highly charged laboratory where Jacky Cheung gets to show off his best 'Harry Potter' wand-waving impersonation before Carina Lau miraculously emerges from her coma to end everything off on yet another melodramatic note.
Despite the high-profile additions of Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, 'From Vegas to Macau 3' is easily the weakest entry of the series, no thanks to a shambolic plot, imbecilic gags, and incoherent action. What fun we had watching Chow Yun-Fat reprise his role as Ko Chun and his hyperactive doppelganger Ken is sorely watered down here, as Wong Jing spreads his time amongst the other key players and even plays down his role. Instead of honouring the legacy of his past screen creations, Wong Jing does them an absolute disservice and even disgrace by bringing them together without meaning or motivation. There is only so much nostalgia can get you, and it is too easy to recognise all that star-power as bluff.
With a movie like 'The Monkey King', the only way you could go with a
sequel is up, so it really isn't that surprising that 'The Monkey King
2' is a few notches better than its predecessor. Yet the two years
since the release of that dull and expensive CGI eyesore sees its
helmer Soi Cheang find poise, imagination and inspiration to deliver a
much more assured, entertaining, and engaging cinematic rendition of
the legendary 'Journey to the West' story, bolstered in no small
measure by an irrepressibly lively turn by Aaron Kwok replacing the
original's Donnie Yen as the titular Sun Wukong and excellent CGI by
no less than the folks behind 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit'.
Now that his origins are out of the way, this second chapter set 500 years after he was imprisoned by the Goddess of Mercy sees the young and ingenuous Tang Priest Xuanzang (Feng Shaofeng) free Wukong from under the clutches of the Five Elements Mountain after being pursued by a white tiger. Unbeknowst to Wukong, their encounter has in fact been predestined by the Goddess (Kelly Chen) herself, who has given Wukong the quest of protecting Xuanzang on his journey to retrieve some sacred scriptures. Unbeknownst to Wukong, two other characters have been given similar assignments one, the half-man half-pig Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang); and two, the Sand Demon Sha Wujing (Him Law) thus completing the quadfecta of characters most commonly associated with the classic story.
Opting wisely not to cover too much ground, a newly appointed quartet of screenwriters (including Ran Ping and Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi) instead pick a famous segment from Wu Cheng'en's classical novel to form the backbone for this film, that of Wukong defeating the White Boned Demon (or 白骨精). The latter has been terrorising the wealthy Silk Road Kingdom of Yun for years, but her latest target is Xuanzang, whose flesh she believes will help her gain immortality. Those familiar with the source novel will remember the famous 'three strikes' between Wukong and the White Boned Demon - first as a village girl, second as an elderly woman and third as an elderly man but rather than a literal adaptation, the writers have re-interpreted the text more broadly as a three-round fight between the Demon and Wukong, with the last reserved for an epic CGI-heavy battle that has the Demon transforming into a towering half-bodied skeleton.
Oh yes, that last sequence alone is probably the most breathtaking that we've seen in any Chinese film thus far, a combination of good old Hong Kong action-on-wirework and modern-day CGI to re-define the fantasy epic genre. In fact, Cheang seems to have adopted the template set by his Hollywood counterparts for this sequel, constructing his film as a compendium of thrilling action sequences with enough story, humour and character development to serve as narrative glue in between.
Replacing Yen as action director is none other than Sammo Hung, and the latter's penchant for showy, flamboyant moves over the former's more grounded style proves a surprisingly better fit for the genre. Seemingly relishing the opportunity to be disencumbered from the forces of gravity, Hung hardly keeps his characters feet on the ground, preferring instead to send them soaring up into the heights of heaven or circling in the air while battling each other or one another. In particular, Kwok's months of martial arts training to prepare for this role has paid off handsomely, rewarding him with a deft physicality to match his naturally buoyant personality.
Cheang has also obviously benefited from the experience of the previous film in working with effects-heavy sequences, such that the visuals here boast a dynamism which its predecessor often lacked. Equally, Cheang is a lot more at ease juggling comedy, drama and action, striking the right balance between lightness and sobriety and the result is a film that knows when to take itself seriously and when to just have fun. The humour is wacky and well-timed, not only from Wukong's cheekiness but also from Bajie's willingness to poke fun at his pigsy look; while the drama emphasises Wukong and Xuanzang's conflicting principles, the former who sees no need to show mercy to those who do evil and the latter who is a firm believer of mercy regardless.
As much as we hate to admit it, Kwok is a much better 'Monkey King' than Yen not only is he much more spirited than Yen ever was, Kwok is also a much more expressive actor, and even under layers of heavy makeup, one feels keenly his sense of playfulness, frustration, indignation, anger, and loyalty to Xuanzang. On the other hand, Gong Li is a much better villain than Kwok was as the Bull Demon King; like Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficient' or Charlize Theron in 'Snow White and the Huntsman', Gong Li exudes elegance and malice in equal measure, so much so that there is never any element of doubt why her two subjects and even the King of Yun Kingdom (Kris Phillips) tremble and quiver in her presence.
Even though it would have made sense for Cheang to step aside for another director to take his place after the embarrassing 2014 original, the choice to return Cheang to the helm is at the end a wise one, allowing this sequel to improve in every respect from story to character to action to drama and ultimately to CGI. No matter how opportunistic it may seem for this sequel to be released right smack at the beginning of the Lunar Year of the Monkey, 'The Monkey King 2' overcomes such cynicism by delivering crowd-pleasing four-quadrant entertainment in exuberant fashion. If it's fun and thrills you're looking for this New Year, it's fun and thrills you'll get.
Till this date, Stephen Chow's 'God of Cookery' remains the gold
standard in culinary-themed comedies, and to be sure, Chapman To's
'Let's Eat!' won't be changing that yardstick anytime soon;
notwithstanding, To's dish of familiar yet agreeable ingredients makes
for an amusing and heartwarming lesson on putting your heart into
everything that you do (or in this case, cook), so you don't have to
worry about sending this back to the kitchen at all.
Assuming multi-hyphenate duties here, To not only directs but also writes and stars as the head chef Dai Hung of the once-Michelin starred Ah Yong Café. Its titular owner (Lo Hoi Pang) old and showing signs of dementia, Dai Hung now runs the café with a loyal bunch of servers, including the nerdy bespectacled Brushie (FAMA's C-Kwan), the pudgy gentle-mannered Gayon (Tommy Kuan) and the coy ingénue Beancurd Flower (Daphne Low). A better cook than businessperson, Dai Hung's insistence on using only the freshest ingredients for his customers while keeping prices constant means that the restaurant hasn't turned in a decent profit in years and struggles in fact just to break even.
Before his memory totally fails him, Ah Yong decides to entrust his café to his eldest daughter Rosemary (Aimee Chan), who so happens to return to Malaysia after completing her Masters in hospitality management in Switzerland. Rosemary is a businesswoman at heart, and decides to change how the restaurant is run in order that it stays in the black. Besides making superficial improvements with technology (such as getting customers to make their own orders on iPads), Rosemary overhauls the menu to introduce new-fangled products like Korean fried chicken, fish and chips, and 'Bangkok Wolverine' (or 'tom yum goong' really) while settling for cheaper ingredients in order to lower costs.
Thus sets the basis for their loggerheads with each other, one the principled head chef who adamantly refuses to part with tradition and perfection and the other the savvy management head who is eager to innovate and do what it takes to improve the bottom line. When the deteriorating food quality is slammed by a famous food blogger by the name of Michelin, is it any wonder that Dai Hung and Rosemary will eventually put aside their differences in order to save the restaurant from oblivion? In fact, is it also any wonder that they will, in the process, fall in love with each other despite recovering from the bruises of their respective previous relationships?
Like we said, originality isn't the strong suit of his script (who shares screen writing credit with Lai Chaing Ming and Ang Siew Hoong), but To makes it work with a nice yin-yang chemistry between himself and Chan. As always, To nails the role of the comically self-effacing individual with his amiable easy-going charm, and he shares a pleasingly complementary rapport next to Chan playing the stern and largely humourless rival. It is a pity that To's writing is a little too thin on the characters, such that Dai Hung and Rosemary's relationship doesn't quite evolve during the course of the movie as much as we would have liked it to.
For that same reason, the climax that takes place at a cooking competition organised by a regional TV channel right here in Singapore feels somewhat anti-climactic, especially because Rosemary's redemption lies at the hands of a French chef and a local food critic who discloses during the judging process that she doesn't even like chicken to begin with. Even a little twist at the end that reveals the identity of Michelin is hardly any surprise, and the happily-ever-after ending for Dai Hung and Rosemary (were you expecting any different from a CNY movie?) feels more obligatory than deserved despite the former having just recently rejected the advances of a former flame (Fiona Sit).
Yet to begrudge To for these flaws seems parsimonious, for To remains delightfully good-natured company to be in the presence of for a good hour and a half. To's comedic sensibilities have not dulled even though he assumes multiple duties an early sequence where he and C Kwan are at a Korean fried chicken outlet dissing the 'chicken from the stars' is classically To, and another where and he and Rosemary are at dinner with her father and younger sister sees the former deliver a hilarious monologue which is spot-on in its analogy of how politicians speak. Not all the jokes hit the mark though in particular, a sequence where Singapore's own Henry Thia is accused of being Michelin is too belaboured to inspire any laughs; and the same can be said of the token few lines given to Mark Lee who guest stars as the creator of the gastronomic competition.
It needs to be said too that a significant portion of the humour is lost in the Mandarin-dubbed version that is screened in Singapore cinemas, such that To, Chan and C Kwan are heard completely in Mandarin throughout the entire film. That is of course no fault of To's, who has put his heart into creating an uneven but nonetheless well- intentioned film that emphasises the importance of finding true meaning in the pursuit of innovation or the upkeep of tradition. This is no classic surely, but there are good laughs and great company to be had with 'Let's Eat!', which is more than enough for a pleasing Lunar New Year offering.
'Long Long Time Ago' is our very own Jack Neo's ode to a bygone era
from half a century ago, so it is no coincidence that this tale of a
family who lives through Singapore's formative years of independence
begins on the very day that we were kicked out of Malaysia.
It is on that day that a very pregnant Zhao Di (Aileen Tan) is driven out of her husband's home by his first wife, and moves back with her three daughters to stay with her father (Wang Lei), her second brother Ah Kun (Mark Lee) and his family, and third brother Ah Xi (Benjamin Tan).
The analogy is straightforward like Singapore, Zhao Di finds the burden of her own survival thrust onto her on 9 August 1965, and it is hardly any surprise that her subsequent display of tenacity and indomitable spirit as she perseveres to provide for her immediate and extended family are pretty much the same qualities that have been celebrated as the fundamental elements of our nation's success.
As narrated by Zhao Di's oldest daughter Su-ting, theirs is a story of the trials and tribulations of the family through the early years of Singapore's independence, with this first part of a duology (yes, this is like 'Ah Boys to Men' and 'The Lion Men' a story split in halves) spanning a four-year period.
Along the way, Neo highlights several iconic moments in our history, including the first Identity Card (IC) registration in 1966, the first National Service (NS) call-up in 1967, the first elections since independence in 1968, the race riots of 1969, and last but not least the big floods in the same year over Hari Raya Puasa.
Each of these junctures is intended as a turning point for the population at large as well as for our characters, but as well- intentioned as these signposts of our history are meant to be, Neo (who shares screen writing credit with Link Sng and Ivan Ho) struggles to weave them into the individual and collective fates of the latter.
Indeed, Ah Kun's cynicism about Singapore's ability to survive without a hinterland as he stands in line during the 1966 nationwide IC registration exercise seems to vanish as soon as he reaches the head of the queue; ditto for the concomitant apprehension expressed by his Malay neighbour Osman's (Suhaimi Yusof) wife about staying in a Chinese-majority country vis-à-vis migrating to live with a majority up north. On the other hand, there is hardly any attention paid to how Ah Xi feels as the first batch of male citizens called to perform their national duty, even as he dutifully reports to for enlistment.
In particular, Neo's attempt to make the 1969 race riots personally relevant for his characters feels especially awkward and unwieldy not only is it puzzling why Ah Kun, who had never before expressed any racially discriminatory sentiments, would suddenly spread mistruths and disinformation about the Malays attacking the Chinese, Neo's ultimate point about how fragile our racial cohesion is and how important inter-racial friendships are to keeping the peace and harmony comes off sounding didactic.
It is only right at the end does Neo finally manage to translate a historical milestone into something momentous for his characters, as Neo recreates with some generous help from CGI the torrential downpour on 10 December 1965 that led to the worst floods in Singapore in over three decades. In that event, Neo captures the fear, anxiety and helplessness of those living in the 'kampungs' through Zhao Di and her family, as they find their house gradually inundated by the rising waters and paralysed by the dilemma whether to wait for help or make their own way to higher ground.
That finale is as dramatic and emotionally gripping a finale as it gets, but it also underscores just how indifferent the rest of the 'checkpoints' in history have been to his central narrative. Therein lies the crux, or should we say crutch, of Neo's film by trying to balance the significant events in Singapore's history with the ups and downs of a family living through that era, it ends up being too episodic and scattershot to truly resonate.
In effect, it is when Neo allows his story to develop more organically that his film comes alive and a good case in point is the relationship between Zhao Di and a local gangster Ah Long (Ryan Lian) that evolves compellingly from intimidation to mutual gratitude. Ditto for the tension brewing between Zhao Di and Ah Kun in the last act, brought about by the latter's resentment of his sister's modest success that is reflected in how he demands to have a share of her relative wealth.
It is no secret that Neo is a big fan of nostalgia, and 'Long Long Time Ago' is probably his boldest attempt yet to translate his own personal experience into a compelling portrait of history. His enthusiasm and attention to detail is right up there on the screen not just in the visually accurate representations of the 'kampungs' and streets of pre-HDB Singapore supplemented with painstakingly sourced archival footage, but also in how he captures the heartbeat of 'kampung life' through its norms and values .
That his depiction of Singapore in its early years will resonate with those who have lived through the era is an understatement, but beyond that familiarity, there is little else that does not the boorish Ah Kun and his manipulative ways, and maybe ever just so slightly Zhao Di and her quiet resolve. Perhaps the best praise for this middling blend of history and fiction is that it is much, much better than last year's '1965', but 'Long Long Time Ago' still has a long, long way to go to become that definitive tribute to our past.
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